First Time Teacher: How To Teach English Online

A new online teacher wondering how to teach English online

Note: This guide focuses on teaching for an online company specifically. This guide is meant for teachers who have already been hired and are preparing to teach their first class. If you are wondering how you can get hired by an online ESL company or are wondering what online ESL teaching is all about then you can check out this guide.

If you are looking for a first time teachers guide for traditional classroom-based ESL teacher you read this guide for teachers abroad.

You passed the interview, you’ve gone through the mock classes and training, and now you have your first scheduled class. But, you are wondering exactly how to teach English online. Your first class can be nerve-wracking if you aren’t fully prepared for it and some online ESL companies may not have the best training. I’ll go in-depth on how to prepare for your first class as well as what you need for teaching and what could go wrong as well as what to do in those situations so that you are fully prepared to do an amazing job.

What do I need for my first class?

One of the first things you want to make sure of is that you have everything you need to properly conduct a class in a comfortable environment. The last thing you want is to get into your first class a couple of minutes before it’s time to start only to realize your lighting isn’t good or your camera is poor or that your computer won’t handle the courseware and video streaming. I am going to go through a checklist of what you want to have set up and how to fine-tune things so that you have all of the necessities as well as look into some further things you can get for added comfort while you are teaching.

The Basics

You are first going to want to make sure you have the necessary items for teaching. Thankfully, there aren’t many things you absolutely need beyond a computer. However, by making sure you have the necessary items beforehand and, more importantly, that the items you get are high-quality you are going to ensure that your classes are the best they can be for your students.

  • Computer – you are obviously going to need a computer for teaching online. The fact that you already have a job means you probably already have the computer you are intending to use for teaching. But, you want to make sure that your computer will be able to juggle all of the tasks such as running the courseware and the video as well as any other programs you will be running while teaching. If your computer is more than a few years old it may be worth looking into getting a new one to ensure you don’t have any issues during classes such as your computer crashing which could cause you to miss out on money as well as lose any bonuses your company has as a few hundred dollars in lost bonuses a month will quickly add up to what you would have spent on the computer). At a minimum, you want to look for a computer with at least 6GB of RAM and at least an i5 processor. Most computers built in the last five years are going to have enough hard drive space for teaching online but a good rule of thumb is that you want a minimum of 60GB free on your hard drive for any courseware and lesson plans you may need to download. Refer to this article for a list of optimal computers for teaching English online as well as what you want to look for when selecting the perfect computer for you.
  • Headset – the second most important piece of equipment after your computer is going to be your headset. You won’t have much success teaching classes if you can’t hear your students and everything they are saying. Take it from my own personal experience that regular headphones just don’t do the trick. Not only do they allow a lot of noise in which can cause you to miss what some students are saying, but, they also can become extremely uncomfortable after a few classes. Especially, if you are using in-ear headphones, these types can cause ear infections as well as other long-term problems such as hearing loss. I was using regular headphones in the beginning but it was not optimal nor healthy and I eventually switched over to a quality headset after not being able to hear some of my quieter students and having periodic earaches from using them too much. I currently use the Marshall Major II Bluetooth Headset (plugged in though to prevent interference) but you can refer to this article for a more complete list of the best headsets for online English teaching.
  • Props – many companies are going to require that you use props in your classes as many of the students you will be working with are going to be younger and will need a bit of excitement to help keep them focused. There are possibly hundreds and maybe even thousands of different items that can be used as props so it can be hard for first-time teachers to really understand what they should use. Many teachers use stuffed animals, however, I’ve found in my own classes that a combination of noisemakers, as well as stuffed animals for the really young students, is best. I’ve created this list of the best props to use and explained when the best time to use them is to further help you find the best props for your class.

Staying Comfortable

After you have the necessities you are going to want to make sure that you have everything you need to be comfortable while teaching classes. You will be on your computer for multiple hours a day and may only have five-minute breaks in between classes. Because of this, it is important to make sure you are comfortable so that you can effectively teach without any added stress.

  • Ergonomic Chairs – sitting for multiple hours a day at a desk isn’t optimal for your body. In fact, long periods of sitting are associated with long-term back problems.  As an online English teacher, you are going to be at your desk for multiple hours every single day potentially and may want to find an alternative to the usual computer chair you may use which will cause you to slouch forward and leave you putting a strain on your back. The solution to this is an ergonomic chair. There are many different types of ergonomic chairs and in this article, I’ve gone in-depth into how to select the right ergonomic chair for you as well as listed some of the top options for online English teachers.
  • Standing Desks – if you don’t feel like going the ergonomic chair route or if sitting for hours at a time just isn’t your thing then the perfect alternative is the standing desk. Standing desks allow you to get rid of the chair altogether by raising your computer to a level that it is in line with your face so that you can easily see and work without having to put your spine in weird positions. This is great for online ESL teachers as you can stand up and stay energized which will also allow you to more easily act out and display your TPR skills which so many companies are going to be looking for their teachers to do. If you are new to standing desks and want more information about them as well as some suggestions for the best standing desks this article I previously published has you covered.

What should I know before my first class?

Many online ESL companies have made it incredibly easy to teach English online. They have the courseware, material, and lesson plans already created for you. Literally, the only thing you have to do is show up and read their material. That being said, there are a few things that you should know in advance about how to teach English online that will significantly improve your first class and set you up to successfully complete many classes after that too.

Lesson Plans

Each company will differ in how they handle lesson plans but one thing that will be similar is that each will have some kind of document which will explain the objectives for each lesson. As you teach more and more lessons for the same company you are going to begin to notice the structure of each lesson and will not need to refer to the lesson plans nearly as much or at all to teach a class. That being said, for your first lesson, reviewing the lesson plan a few times as you go through the courseware will significantly help you by making you more comfortable with the layout of the courseware and the objective of that specific lesson. At this point in my online teaching career, I have probably taught well over 2,000 classes. But, before I taught my first class, looking over the lesson plan helped me greatly by familiarizing me with what was expected for that lesson and greatly relieved some of the anxiety I was feeling about teaching English online for the first time.

Teaching Tips

This is a very large category which honestly can be another article unto itself. So, for the purposes of this article, I am going to focus on the top three teaching tips which, if you implement, will significantly help you to teach your first online English class and make the process fun and stress-free.

  • Remember to speak slowly. This may be obvious but non-native speakers of any language have a hard time understanding native speakers of that language. Think of the last time you heard someone speaking a language you didn’t understand. It probably didn’t even sound like they were using words and instead just spitting out a bunch of gibberish. This is because your ears aren’t trained to distinguish the different sounds that they are using to make up the words in that language so it all just flows together. What you will have to remember is that you will be coming across students that represent an extremely wide level of skill when teaching English online. You may have younger students that are as fluent as a native speaker or high school level students who struggle to speak using complete and correct sentences. You never know what you will come across. So, to make things easier for your students do your best to speak slowly and emphasize the different sounds in each word and make sure to clearly distinguish each word in a sentence. Sometimes it can be hard to do this when you are nervous, as you will probably be for your first class. But, speaking slowly and clearly will go a long way in helping your student to more easily understand what you are saying and will allow the lesson to, hopefully, progress smoothly and with few problems.
  • Understand that you may have multiple students within the same class and each might have a different skill level. It is unfortunate, but, many language schools and parents are in fact a poor judge of how well their student can really speak. You may have three students that are the same age but two students can speak fluently for their level and one student may not be able to pronounce the words well or read. This will further cause stress for that one student as they know they are behind which can cause them to participate less. Being able to work around these challenges and easily identify the skill level of your students so that you don’t place them in awkward positions or unnecessarily stress them out will help you to have a smooth class where all students involved can participate without feeling bad about themselves. Also, remember to take into account why that student may be having problems. Some students may have speech issues. Others may not have the same chances to study and practice as their peers who might have parents or siblings that speak English and therefore aren’t necessarily behind but instead just not as advanced. Others still may just be lazy and not really care about learning English in which case you can give them all the extra attention possible and they will never improve. Learning how to read your students will go a long way in helping you to create a comfortable atmosphere for your first class. Remember though that this is a skill that will take time so if you can’t easily do it in your first class don’t feel bad.
  • Make sure to read what the company you are teaching for expects. Each company will have different expectations and guidelines for how to teach English online. More still, you are going to figure out these guidelines will change as the company grows. Some companies are going to want you to be animated and entertaining with lots of TPR and colorful backgrounds and lots of props. Others are going to put more of a focus on sticking to the courseware and asking a lot of questions. For your first few classes, they are probably going to be observing your after class video in order to give you feedback so a good rule of thumb is to look at the things they are going to be looking at so you already know what is expected of you. Most or all of this is going to be covered in your initial training but looking through any material that is provided or asking for clarification before your first class can be helpful in making sure everything goes smoothly and you perform as expected.

Extra Activities

There are a large number of games and activities that have been created over time for helping ESL students to learn English in a fun way. These games and activities are going to be important for helping you to keep your classes exciting and diverse. Different companies will have different policies for the use of outside games and activities in the classroom and some may require you to strictly adhere to the courseware. However, others will encourage improvisation and if you find you work for a company which will allow you to use games then having a few in your toolbox for when the lesson begins to get dull can go a long way in keeping your students attention and keeping things fun and exciting. Gooverseas has a list of different games and activities for students of different skill levels. Some of them will work well online and some of them won’t. You will just have to try and find out. But, make sure and memorize one in case you need to use it in your first online English class.

What could go wrong in my first class?

Just as you want to be prepared to teach the perfect class you should also be prepared for what can go wrong during the class. Because you will be teaching online, there is both the technology as well as the human element present and there are a large number of variables that could cause your class to go not so perfectly. Understanding what these issues are and then being fully prepared to deal with them will distinguish you as a great and reliable teacher and will help you to get booked for even more classes past your first.

Technical Issues

The last thing you want to occur during the class is a technical issue on your part. So, to avoid this you need to make sure that your internet is stable and that you have an easy backup source such as using your phone as a hotspot or having a mobile router. But, what about when something goes wrong on the part of your students? Each company is going to have a different way of dealing with this but it is important before you teach your first class that you understand the process and who you need to get in touch with should any of your students have any issues during the class. This can range from microphone issues where you can’t hear what your students are saying to connectivity issues on their part causing them to periodically drop out of the lesson. Any technical problems on yours or your students part is going to cut into the already limited time set up for each lesson. So, knowing who to get in touch with and having that contact already ready in the background in case you need it will significantly shorten the time it takes to deal with a problem in the classroom.

Student Issues

In a perfect world, every one of your students would be super sweet and excited to learn and would show up prepared for the lesson having spent enough time studying the material to be familiar with everything. But we don’t live in that world and it is a guarantee that you will come across students that will give you trouble. The very first online English class I taught went horribly for this reason. It was a boy probably about 6 or 7 years old and he did not want to be there. He kept getting up and his mother would try to sit him down but he would cry and yell at her. I didn’t know what to do so I just taught the lesson to what felt like an empty room. It felt like a test they were putting me through to see if I would pass muster. But, I got through the class by just doing what I knew I was supposed to do.

If you are in a class that is one on one then you need to remember that you are there to teach and that is it. You can lead the horse to water but you can’t necessarily make young children pay attention in class. So as long as you are doing what you were hired to do you will be fine. However, if there are multiple students in the classroom and one is causing problems, that is when you will need to contact someone. Each company will be different in how this is to be handled but most likely there will be a support team member who speaks the native language that will come into the class and talk to the student or call the parents so that the issue is resolved. Just remember to keep your cool and teach the material you are supposed to teach and, most importantly, don’t let it stress you out.

What are some final tips?

If you follow the above advice you are going to be fully prepared and ready for anything that can come your way when you teach your first online English class. The most important thing to remember is that you are there to make sure the students have fun. Keep your classroom relaxed and make sure you are adapting to each student’s individual needs and the different situations that occur. Remember, that while you are there to tutor the students, the parents are the ones who decide what rating to give you so if they see their child speaking English and having fun you will most likely get a good rating and will be booked again. This is especially true for your first class when you don’t have any prior ratings. Getting that first five-star (or whatever rating system the company you work for utilizes) will go a long way towards getting you future bookings but also in boosting your confidence and making you more comfortable when you teach your next class. Just relax and make sure that no matter what happens you stay calm. If you can do this then you can be guaranteed to have a great first class and leave a great impression on your students.



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